What will the Coalition government be remembered for?

by John Redwood MP

Most MPs want the Coalition government to be a one term government. Labour wants to replace it, Conservatives want to win a majority next time in their own right. Some Lib Dems would rather form a Coalition next time with Labour, hoping the numbers would allow them to do so. This makes it an unusual government, as most of its members are not dreaming of a second term for the government they support.

When the government set out its stall a year ago it told us it wanted to do two big things. It wanted to bring the deficit down, stabilising the country’s finances. It wanted to be a reforming government, changing education, health and welfare and public service more generally. It wanted to do both these in a five year period, and legislated to underwrite its intention to govern for a full five years. So how is it getting on?

In its first year it did cut the deficit a little, by raising taxes. The deficit fell by £13 billion, whilst taxes went up by £35.8 billion. The plan based mainly on cuts in public spending in practice turned out to be a plan based on a forecast large increase in revenue, with a 5.3% increase in public spending in the first year. It seems likely that they will reduce the deficit more over the life of the Parliament, but also seems likely the revenues will undershoot current forecasts whilst spending in cash terms continues to rise. We should expect steady but not dramatic progress in cutting the rate of increase in public borrowing.

In the first year it set out boldly on a wide range of public sector reforms. The Prime Minister let us know that he had learnt from Tony Blair not to waste the first term as PM. He said he wanted to be seen as a reforming PM: “I want us to make our schools and hospitals among the best in the world. To open them up and make them more competitive, more local and more transparent. To give more choice to those who use our public services and more freedom to the professionals who deliver them”

The Education reforms based on introducing more academies and free schools have gone through at a fast pace. There is momentum in the academies programme. Conservatives are disappointed there will not be more grammar schools, as many see these schools as the best way to encourage upwards academic mobility for all those who cannot afford independent school fees, but pleased with progress otherwise.

The Health reforms are being paused. It is too early to say how much of the pioneering enthusiasm of the White Paper, prepaerd jointly by the Coalition partners and approved in the Letwin-Alexander review will survive. Key to the plans – in the manifestos of both Coalition parties – was offering more choice to patients and more competitive pressure on provision to raise standards and to control costs. The German system of healthcare, for example, is largely delivered through charitable sector and private sector hospitals. Will the UK go further in that direction, set up by the previous Labour government? At the moment it is looking more likely that the government will back away from some of the Blair reforms.

The forest reforms and changes were dropped after a strong campaign against them. I never understood why the heritage forests were included in the plans, as that was always going to be contentious. Will the Coalition government even sell as much commercial forest as Labour did? Time will tell.

The welfare benefits reform is in development stage, with a large computerisation programme under way. Implementation will take place much closer to the election. It is far too early to forecast how radical and successful this might be. The same is true of pension reform.

The government will in practice be judged by how long and strong its economic recovery is. Radical and successful reform of one or two public services would be a bonus. It appears the government is moving from radical to cautious in several important areas.

Meanwhile the unelected Archbishop of Canterbury says no-one voted for the Coalition’s radical reforms of health, education and welfare. I suggest he reads the Conservative and Lib Dem manifestos, which contained reforming proposals in each of these areas.

You can follow John Redwood’s thoughts on his blog here.

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